One unfortunate aspect of Montessori is that, since no one “owns” the name/title, anyone who wishes to can open up a preschool, put a pink tower in the corner, and call themselves “Montessori.”  There are many wonderful and amazing Montessori schools… and there are also quite a few not very good ones, and unfortunately it is these lesser schools that help spread confusion and misinformation of what Montessori is and how it works.

I often hear from people about how they don’t like the Montessori Method based on a bad experience they, or their sister, or their best friend’s brother’s friend, had with a particular school.  One common misconception is that Montessori is all about letting kids run around wild, doing whatever they want, whenever they want.  I’ve heard people say that Montessori doesn’t teach kids to respect authority or authority figures.  One person told me her sister had taken her children out of a Montessori school because she felt the school was too rigid and didn’t allow for expressing creativity.  Anyone who knows and understand Maria Montessori’s philosophy well knows that these are examples of poorly implemented “Montessori” ideas.

The truth is, when done well a Montessori education leads to children who learn inner discipline, thanks to being given absolute freedom within a very carefully prepared and managed environment.  These children learn to respect their teachers due to feeling understood and cared for, rather than out of fear.  And Montessori is one of the best forms of education I know of for fostering and expressing creativity, as it is the child who is in control and who guides his or her own learning and discovery (I believe I mentioned in a previous post my friend who wrote his own comic books in his Montessori elementary classroom, as a project that helped him practice his creativity, story-telling, handwriting, focus, and follow-through).

So how is a parent to know which schools as “good” and which ones are, well, not so true to the Montessori methodology?  It can be tough, especially if you yourself are new to Montessori.  I recently went through the process of visiting and observing various schools in the area while searching for the right preschool for my own toddler son.  As I compared schools to one another, some excellent and some very disappointing, here are a few things that came to mind as “markers” to look for*:

Classroom “schedule.” One of the first things I like to ask about is the school’s daily “schedule” for the children.  Maria Montessori was very clear about the children needing a full 3 hour long uninterrupted, unscheduled work period.  This means three full hours without outside interruptions (such as forced circle time where all children must participate, or any other planned activity decided upon by an adult) during which the children are choosing their work, or receiving a lesson by the teacher/guide.  Some schools allow for as little as a single hour for free work time, filling up the rest of the morning with snack, circle times, and other structured activities.  The problem with a short free work period is that the children never get a chance to really buckle down and focus on their work.  I used to work at a school that only gave the children 1 hour to do work, and the entire hour was a constant buzz of activity as the kids let out nervous energy, flitting from one short activity to the other. It was rare to see anyone truly concentrated, and forget about anyone wanting to take out a more involved activity because there wouldn’t be enough time to complete it.

I’ve seen a few schools that provide the children with 2 or 2.5 hours of free work time, which is an improvement.  But then I visited one school that stuck to the full 3 hour work period, and the first thing I saw as I approached a primary classroom was the thousand chain (a long chain of 1,000 beads that the children count and label. Yes, 5 year olds can count all the way up to 1,000) all laid out along the hallway, with 2 children counting and placing their number labels alongside it.  When you have a long work period, there’s actually time to do long work like the thousand chain.  As I watched the classroom, almost every other child in that class was focused on their own work.  The level of calm and focus was amazing.

It can be tough to find a preschool that devotes a full 3 hours of free work time, but I do highly suggest trying to find a school that gives the children 3 hours s to work freely.

Certification. This is where I confess that I’m a bit of an AMI snob.  I received my training through the Association Montessori Internationale, or AMI.  This is the Montessori organization founded by Maria Montessori herself, and seems to do the best job at sticking to the original Montessori ideals and practices.  Therefore, for me, I like to see that a school’s teachers also hold AMI diplomas. This is not a requirement or fail-safe by any means– there are many wonderful teachers and schools who trained through different organizations, and I have also encountered AMI teachers and schools who were lacking (in my opinion). But in my experience, being trained through AMI makes it more likely that the classroom’s practices are closer to a more “pure” form of Montessori.

Mixed age groups. I’ve actually been surprised to see so-called “Montessori” schools that split up their classrooms into narrower age gaps. Instead of having kids 2.5 or 3 years old all the way up to 6 years in one classroom, they’ll put 2 and 3yr olds together and 4 and 5 yr olds together, or some other split.  I find this puzzling and unfortunate, as part of what’s so great about Montessori is the mixed-age groups and the opportunity it gives the children to learn from each other.

Homework and Motivation.  Montessori classrooms – at least the preschool classes – should have no homework.  There should also be no sticker charts, grades, or other external reward systems.  The child’s best reward for work well done is his or her own sense of pride in him/herself.

Observe the classroom. This is really the most important consideration of all.  If you can do nothing else, set up a time when you can observe a classroom at the school, if even only for 20 minutes.  Most schools should allow this, either by letting you sit in a chair inside the actual room or they might have a special window for this purpose.  If possible, see about scheduling some time to talk to the teacher or another staff member at the school to answer any questions that arose in your mind during your observation.  Observing will give you the best sense for what the feel of the whole classroom is like.  What are the children like– are they working productively, or do they seem distracted and restless?  Are they cooperating, or disrupting each other’s work?  What does the classroom itself look like– are the walls busy with distracting posters and prints, or pleasantly decorated without being overwhelming?  Are the materials arranged in an orderly manner on the shelves? Does it feel like an inviting environment?  What about the teacher– how does she react to the children, and how do they react to her?

And most importantly– how does the classroom make you feel? Does it feel cold, or too rigid, or too wild?  Or does what you see make you feel warm and comfortable, and like this is a place where you want your child to be?  Because, when it all comes down to it, that alone is probably the most important factor of any school you choose for your child(ren).

Marcy Hogan holds a Primary diploma from AMI. She lives in Sacramento, CA, along with her husband and son. She also writes about parenting and life in general on her blog, Life is Good.